By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO, March 9 (Reuters) - No new research projects will begin at the U.S. government's key livestock study center until animal welfare is improved through stronger oversight and better training of standards, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday.
Vilsack also ordered that USDA staff update electronic record-keeping practices at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) facility in Nebraska, to ensure all animals are being appropriately monitored and cared for.
The agency announced in January it was looking into livestock conditions at the center, which seeks ways to improve profitability of the U.S. livestock industry, such as by making pork loins less fatty, after a New York Times report said staff had failed to follow basic animal welfare standards during decades of research.
While "no instances of animal abuse, misuse, or mistreatment were observed," according to a draft of the report released Monday by USDA, the facility was not in compliance with Agricultural Research Service policies, in part because the center's committee charged with keeping track of animal care had fallen short of its oversight duties.
The independent panel that conducted the review said the center's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee provided the review panel no evidence that it met regularly to discuss issues or concerns over animal care, and no evidence of a formal review or approval process for research projects proposed by the oversight committee members themselves.
"There appears to be a formal and informal process for research project approvals. There needs to be one process that is followed," John Clifford, USDA chief veterinary officer with the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, wrote in an email. The email - sent by Lauren Christensen, chief of staff for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's veterinary services - was released by USDA Monday.
Clifford added, "I believe they do take personal interest and care of animals but need to keep better records of [the] formal process."
Other problems identified included: uncertainty over who is responsible for, and in charge of, oversight for animal care and welfare in the cooperative arrangement between USMARC and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and no evidence of a clearly defined animal handling training program, or documentation that staff have completed such training.
According to the Times report, the center put animals used for research into cruel and dangerous conditions and has operated outside of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which does not cover most farm animals used in research.
Of the controversial research reported by the Times, only the pasture-lambing project was ongoing, according to USDA. The Times reported that lambs in the project - an effort to turn domesticated sheep into a breed that is not reliant on human help – suffered a very high rate of death due to predators, weather and abandonment. During the panel’s review of the center, the animals were in healthy condition, according to USDA. (Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Alden Bentley)